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Jewish World Review
Knowledge and Wisdom
Rabbi Francis Nataf
Rethinking reactionaries and their old-fashionedness
In commenting on the story of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's two sons who died while presenting a fire offering to G-d, Rashi does something very unusual. The famous exegete extraordinaire seems to contradict himself in very close proximity.
First Rashi tells us that Aaron's sons were either guilty of being drunk while in the Temple and/or not deferring to Moses on a legal question posed in his presence. Right after that, he tells us that these very same sons of Aaron were actually greater than both Moses and Aaron. This last statement, originally found in Midrash Vayikra Rabbah (12:2), is even more curious when we see that Rashi actually only gives us two of the possible sins of Nadav and Avihu. In fact, the rabbis come up with a long list of possible transgressions of these apparently renegade individuals. That being the case, it seems hard to understand how the rabbis could come right back with the conclusion that Nadav and Avihu were greater than Moses and Aaron.
The resolution of this seeming contradiction may lay in the difference between the wisdom that comes from knowledge and the sagacity that comes from experience. While the sons of Aaron may have been great in terms of the former, they were apparently lacking the latter.
Thus, the rabbis teach that one should respect even a foolish old man, justifying this position by saying that his experience alone is worthy of respect (Talmud, Kiddushin 33a). For a young man always seems in a hurry, impatient with the preliminary tests designed to ascertain that taking the rocket further into space will not result in its destruction. "Let's go for it now, since according to my knowledge, there should be no problem," says the young man. The old man responds and says, "But I remember Nadav and Avihu (or some other similar personalities) saying the same thing and they were the finest minds the Jewish people ever saw you know they were even greater than Moses and it didn't quite go as they planned."
One of the main things gained from experience is a better appreciation of the counter-productivity of taking things to the limit without first testing and retesting the waters. That is not to say that the risks always lead to a disaster most of the time they don't. And that is precisely why the young man is willing to go full steam ahead. For him who hasn't seen the likes of Nadav and Avihu the risks remain theoretical. But for the old man who has seen the devastating catastrophes that can result from lack of caution, the dangers are soberingly real.
Since Nadav and Avihu were greater than Moses, we can understand them not deferring to him when a question was asked of them they knew more than Moses and, presumably, he would have nothing to add. Or, so they understandably thought. Moreover, the idea of serving G-d inebriated is not necessarily wrong this is certainly what many great rabbis have done on Purim. Aaron's sons could have thought that they were adding a new dimension to the Divine service that Moses did not understand. Likewise, if we go through the rest of the list of sins, we would see that the central problem was their predilection to ignore Moses, precisely because they were greater than he.
This can also help us understand another seemingly strange statement of the sages, that it is better to destroy when that is what is suggested by the elders than to build when it is suggested by the youth, for the former is true building and the latter actually destruction (Nedarim40a). It is not necessarily that the older people know more. Indeed what is frustrating to young people is that their elders often know less. When young people grow up and discover that they possess more knowledge in certain areas, it is natural for them to be impatient with their parents' wisdom, which often comes to them as mere old-fashionedness and reaction. Though they are sometimes right, other times they only realize too late that the caution of the elders is a healthy check to the impetuousness of youth.
I write as a former youngster who rarely listened to the wisdom of his elders. Not that I was a rebel. Rather, I preferred to chart my own independent course, impatient with advice or counsel except in the most extraordinary circumstances and from the most extraordinary of teachers. With regard to knowledge, it was appropriate not to seek elders who knew less than me, but regarding wisdom, it was to my disadvantage to ignore those who though they may have known less than me would have been able to usefully critique me nonetheless. In retrospect, when I look around me, I note that my most successful peers are the ones who took the most interest in what our elders had to say.
As a teacher also, I discern that the student that really succeeds is the one who is there to listen and not just to spout off their own often brilliant ideas. The one who wants their ideas critiqued and not just appreciated will grow; the others will miss out on an important dimension in life.
All this means that true teachers will never be replaced. True, they can be replaced as sources of information it is much more efficient to package the lectures of the best teachers into recordings and books rather than to have millions of less qualified individuals trying to do as good a job at the local school or university level. (This was no doubt the thinking behind the creation of large university lecture halls.) What will be missing, however, will be the critique of the student's work and the advice of a more seasoned individual on how to improve it. And it is in this interaction that we find true education.
In most vivid terms, the story of Aaron's sons shows us that one that ignores his elders should not live long enough to become a member of what he sees to be a superfluous generation. And even if he lives on, he will likely do so in intergenerational isolation as he ignored his elders, his children will ignore him as well; to the detriment of both generations and to the detriment of mankind.
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Rabbi Francis Nataf is Educational Director of The David Cardozo Academy in Jerusalem.
© 2010, Rabbi Francis Nataf